It was supposed to be Christmas in Europe, where family and friends can again embrace the festivities and each other. On the contrary, the continent is the global epicenter COVID-19 a pandemic, as incidences have skyrocketed to record levels in many countries.
With infections on the rise again despite nearly two years of restrictions, the health crisis is increasingly turning citizen against citizen – vaccinated against the unvaccinated.
Governments, desperate to protect overburdened health care systems, are introducing rules restricting choice for the unvaccinated, in the hope that this will lead to more vaccinations.
Austria went a step further on Friday, making vaccinations mandatory from 1 February.
“For a long time, maybe too long, I and others thought that it should be possible to convince people in Austria to convince them to vaccinate voluntarily,” said Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg.
He called the move “our only way to break out of this vicious circle of viral waves and lockdown discussions for good.”
While Austria is still the only one in the European Union with regard to mandatory vaccinations, more and more governments are taking tough measures.
Since Monday, Slovakia has banned unvaccinated people from visiting all non-essential shops and malls. They will also not be allowed to attend any public events or meetings, and will be required to get tested twice a week just to go to work.
“Merry Christmas does not mean Christmas without COVID-19,” warned Prime Minister Eduard Heger. “For this, Slovakia must have a completely different level of vaccination.”
He called these measures “closure for the unvaccinated.”
Slovakia, with only 45.3% of its 5.5 million population fully vaccinated, reported a record 8,342 new cases of the virus on Tuesday.
It is not only the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that are suffering again. The wealthy Western countries have also been hit hard and are again imposing restrictions on their populations.
“Now is the time to act,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday. With a vaccination rate of 67.5%, her country was currently considering mandatory vaccinations for many health workers.
Greece also targets the unvaccinated. On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a series of new restrictions on the unvaccinated, preventing them from being in places, including bars, restaurants, cinemas, theaters, museums and gyms, even if they tested negative.
“This is an immediate act of protection and, of course, an indirect incentive to vaccinate,” Mitsotakis said.
The restrictions infuriate Claire Daly, an Irish EU legislator and member of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties and Justice Committee. She argues that nations trample on individual rights.
“On a number of occasions, member states have prevented people from going to work,” Daly said, calling the Austrian restrictions on the unvaccinated, which preceded Friday’s decision to impose complete isolation, “a daunting scenario.”
Even in Ireland, where 75.9% of the population is fully vaccinated, she feels a backlash against the protesters.
“There is almost a bit of hatred towards unvaccinated people,” she said.
In the world there is a history of mandatory vaccinations in many countries against diseases such as smallpox and polio. Still, while the total death toll from COVID-19 exceeds 5 million, despite overwhelming medical evidence that vaccines go a long way toward protecting against death or serious illness from COVID-19 and slowing the spread of the pandemic, resistance to vaccination remains persistently strong among some segments of the population.
About 10,000 people chanting “freedom, freedom” gathered this week in Prague to protest against the restrictions imposed by the Czech government on the unvaccinated.
“No individual freedom can be absolute,” argues Professor Paul de Grauve of the London School of Economics. “The freedom not to be vaccinated must be limited to guarantee the freedom of others to have good health,” he wrote for the liberal think tank Liberales.
This principle now distracts friends from each other and divides families in European countries.
Birgitte Schenmakers, general practitioner and professor at the University of Leuven, sees this almost daily.
“It turned into a battle between people,” she said.
She sees political conflicts fueled by people, deliberately spreading conspiracy theories, but also deeply human stories. One of her patients was not allowed to stay at her parents’ house because she is afraid of being vaccinated.
Schumakers said that while authorities have long abandoned the idea of compulsory vaccination, it is highly contagious delta option changes mind.
“U-turns are incredibly difficult,” she said.
The surge in infections and containment measures combine to usher in Europe’s second dismal holiday season in a row.
Leuven has already canceled its Christmas market, and in neighboring Brussels on Thursday, a 60-foot Christmas tree was installed in the center of the stunning Grand Place, but the decision on whether the Belgian capital’s holiday market can move forward will hinge on a viral surge.
Paul Virendils, who donated the Christmas tree, is hoping for a return to the semblance of traditional Christmas.
“We are glad to see that they are trying to put up the Christmas tree and decorate it. This is the beginning, ”he said. “After almost two difficult years, I think it’s good that some of the more normal things in life are happening again.”